The Etruscans and the Sea

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Maritime Trading

There is no doubt that the Etruscan sea ports, or emporia were important international trading centres, and therefore of great economical and cultural significance for the Etruscans. Judging from the Greek and Phoenician sanctuaries found in Graviscae and Pyrgi respectively they were probably populated by mixed peoples, and attracted merchants and artisans from far afield. We have a historical example of such a trader in Demeratos of Corinth. Livy tells us that he sold Etruscan goods to the Greeks and Greek goods to the Etruscans, and that he brought with him a number of artists from Corinth. The presence of Proto-Corinthian and Corinthian ware in Caere and Tarquinia would appear to be consistent with this account.

It is possible that there were restrictions placed on centres such as Pyrgi and Vetulonia by the Carthaginians and Phoenicians, as demonstrated by the only surviving example of a Sea Treaty with Carthage.

During the time of the Etruscan rule of Rome, one such treaty was made with Carthage, and it details for example that the Western Mediterranean was out of bound for Etruscan (then Roman) trade. This was probably an example of many other treaties with Etruscan cities.

The fact that Etruscan goods have been found in Carthage and throughout the Western Mediterranean, shows that the Etruscan trading network was quite extensive from the earliest phase in their history. There is also evidence of the close trading ties between the Etruscans and Carthage, as shown by a terracotta "calling card" recently found in the ruins of Carthage, and inscribed in Etruscan with the name of a Carthaginian merchant, which stated that he came from Carthage. The terracotta device was intended to match up with another half, presumably in Etruria.

We have a rough idea what Etruscan merchant ships must have looked like from a wall painting in The Tomb of The Ship in Tarquinia. This shows a two masted sailing ship, perhaps some 20 metres long. The perspective has been over-exaggerated by the artist, since the ship was painted on dry land, presumable looking up at it from below.

The above picture shows a reconstruction of what this ship must have looked like. The lines show the probably water level. From a wreck of an Etruscan ship found off the island of Giglio, we have a reasonable idea of their construction. There is evidence to show that planks were butted together (not overlapped) and bound in place using thick ropes, which were passed through 2 centimetre (1") diameter holes in the planks. The gaps were probably then sealed using pitch.

The ship was quite squat in shape, and this example was totally different from Greek and Roman ships, in that it had two masts, rigged with square sails. The fact that it had square sails meant that quite often they had to wait many days for a favorable wind. Attached to the stern of the ship were two large steering oars. According to ancient accounts from the Greeks and the Romans, merchant vessels would sail within sight of land, and would weigh anchor at night in shallower water close to shore. Anchors were made of stone, and were typically inscribed with relevant details, such as "I am the property of Avle Spurinas". Ancient sources attribute the invention of the anchor to the Etruscans.

The cargoes of these merchant ships included many goods carried in amphorae, and many other goods such as metal ingots and pottery.

The shipping amphora was pointed in the ends, enabling storage on special racks with holes. However not all amphorae carried on ships were of this type, and flat based amphorae are also common.

The Amphora - The multi-purpose containers of the ancient world

The ubiquitous amphora has come in a myriad of distinct forms spanning four millennia, from the Mycenaean amphora of about the 14th century BCE up to the present day. Remarkably enough , some goods are still being transported in amphorae in the 21st century, although nowadays it is much is more common to find stainless steel bulk containers for bulk wine or olive oil shipments.

The amphora was one of the most common vessels in Etruscan, Roman and Greek pottery, and was common throughout the ancient Mediterranean. It is a two-handled pot with a neck narrower than the body.

There are two types of amphora: the neck amphora, in which the neck meets the body at a sharp angle; and the one-piece amphora, in which the neck and body form a continuous curve. The first is common from the Geometric period to the decline of Greek pottery; the second appeared in the 7th century BCE. Amphorae have varied in size from the 1.5 metre aphora of the Greek Geometric period down to the miniature " amphoriskoi" which stood less than 30cm..

The neck amphora, from the geometric style (c. 1000- 900 BCE), has about 12 distinct shape variations, determined as much by utilitarian as by aesthetic considerations. Noteworthy are the Nolan type (from Nola, Italy), some of which had triple handles, popular in red-figure pottery; the Panathenaic amphora, painted in black-figure and presented as a prize (filled with olive oil and having the inscription "I am one of the prizes from Athens") at the Panathenaic Festivals from the 6th to the 2nd century BCE; and the loutrophoros, slender-bodied, with a tall neck and flaring mouth, used from the 6th century for ritual purposes at weddings and funerals..

The amphora was truly the multipurpose container of the ancient world. Amphorae, which survive in great numbers, were used as storage and transport vessels for olives, cereal, oil, wine and many other less likely goods.

"Shipping Amphorae" were generally (but not always) pointed at one end to allow easy storage on racks. However, in order for this system to be successful, there has to be a certain uniformity of shape and size among amphorae. The Roman measure known as the "amphora" or 48 sextarii was a standard measure of approximately 25.5 litres while the original Greek "amphora" was about 34 litres.
In some cases, archaeologists can identify the exact age and provenance of most amphorae by their shape and size.

The Amphora in Maritime Trade

To get some insight into how amphorae were handled, we need to look at some practical aspects of shipping, which apply equally to this day. I think we can presume that the Etruscans and the Romans after them had a good grasp of the efficient use of labour, and how to avoid double handling.

Unlike a barrel, an amphora cannot be rolled along the ground without damaging it, so we are left with few choices. It would be a slow process and an inefficient use of labour to carry them on to a ship manually. Even with the readily available labour of slaves in the Ancient World, to actually carry them on in this manner was inefficient in terms of both time and labour, and time in the shipping industry means money. In fact in those ports of the Southern Mediterranean where amphorae are still used, amphorae are loaded and discharged in grape like structures, with the rope passed through the handles.

The bungs or stoppers of amphorae were generally marked with identification. This is hardly surprising when we consider that ships may have contained cargoes destined for many ports. A consignment of amphorae may have had to travel as much as 2000 kilometers in total, both by land and sea, and in some cases they were trans-shipped, in other words left at the Emporium for collection by another vessel destined for the customer's port. So as well as identification of the customer, details of the ship, the origin of the goods, would have to be recorded as a guide for the various people who would handle them en route. Strict record keeping would have been necessary as a record against theft of the contents and to ensure that the cargoes were not mixed up, or stacked in the wrong order so that the cargo for the first port of call were on top of others for the first destination. The resulting double handling that would result, not to mention demurrage costs would have had serious repercussions for the profit margin.

The contents themselves would have to be checked, perhaps many times during the shipping operation, and skilled workers at a typical Mediterranean "Emporium" would know what the contents were, what the correct ullage was for each type of Amphora either by experience, or by using special tools such as are used in the wine industry.

The Etruscans and the Phoenicians alike were very successful in their dominance of the seas during the early part of the first millennium BCE. From the above description, it can be seen that a written language and good systems were needed to get to this stage and there is little doubt that the trading competition was extremely fierce during this time. It was a cut throat business in some cases literally, and as well as physical conflict and piracy, there was the technological competition to ensure the competitive edge.

Most of the knowledge we have of Greek pottery comes from the graveyards of Etruria. The tombs and grave yards of the ancient Adriatic city of Spina alone have yielded over 2000 examples.

Some of the earliest examples are clearly Greek imports, but the Etruscans departed significantly from the Greek model, and created distinctive schools of art in their own rights.

Etruscan Piracy and Naval Conflict

(Written by Jim Penny & Robert Destellirer)

Above : Battle at sea, detail from the Caeretan Hydria

Etruscan ships of war were built for speed,were typically sleek and streamlined in their design, and were propelled by crews of oarsmen in a single bank of oars (such as pentaconters) or two banks (diremes). Sails were used as a back-up in instances where speed was not required.

Such Galleys were typically from 20 metres to 30 metres in length, and were fitted with a "rostrum" or beak which was inserted on the prow of the ship to ram enemy galleys. According to Herodotus, the rostrum was an Etruscan invention.

Battles would often rely on tactics, which made good use of knowledge of tide and wind changes. In some cases, ships were forced into the shallows where they were easy prey to their adversaries. In other cases, enemy ships were rammed using the rostrum fitted to the prow, and when ships were in close quarters, considerable exchange of arrows (some burning) and spears would take place.

The Etruscans never developed the trireme (with its three banks of oars), which was used to great advantage by the Greeks at Syracuse. We shall now consider why this may have been the case.

The trireme was already in use prior to 500 BCE, but Themistokles persuaded the Athenians to build and perfect this extremely expensive single purpose craft. This venture was financed by putting the silver mines at Laurion at the disposal of the building program.

The trireme is exorbitantly expensive in many ways:

At least 200 crew (oarsmen and sailors) are needed to man it. The crew has to be in a permanent state of readiness - a navy in reserve. The training necessary for this can be very costly indeed. For example a fleet of 100 triremes would require at least 20 000 crew - We then need to add about 10 - 20 per ship on top of this, giving us an extra 2- 3000 crew.

The trireme was expensive to build, man and supply. This becomes evident when we consider having to provide food and water for 20 000 men every day. The trireme was so swift and small that it could not carry supplies for more then 2 days. It was also so fragile that it could not remain overnight in the open sea, and had to beach each night or remain in close proximity to the coast. As well as this, triremes could not function effectively in rough sea conditions.

The Spartans (Laconians), Etruscans, and later on the Romans were quite accomplished in sea conficts, although they also excelled in land warfare (more about Etruscan naval tactics later)

The Athenians preferred to use fewer crewmen and relied instead on swift ramming actions (Periplous and Dikplous). Of course they had the necessary highly trained crews and ships for these tactics.

Only the richest maritime states such as Athens could maintain such an enormous revenue consuming navy. The great sea power of Corcyra around 480 BCE (reference Thukydides) was unable to follow the Athenian example - It was just too expensive.

We should remember that the Spartan navy in the Peloponnesian war was financed by Persian gold. Only Syracuse could afford to follow the Athenian example.

The trireme had an extremely short lifetime - about 20 years. In contrast, the penteconter was far less expensive and more durable. It didn't need such a large crew, and was multi-purpose. It had plenty of room for stores, so it could be used for both war and trading purposes in extended voyages. The Pentaconter was also much more robust than the trireme.

The reign of the trireme as empress of naval warfare was very brief. Even around 450, the supreme attacking force of the trireme was countered by constructing long beams on ships, so that ramming became difficult.

Furthermore around 390, there came the Quadrireme, and later on the Quinquireme, so that the trireme eventually became obsolete.

Why obsolete? - A quadrireme requires 4 oarsmen for each oar, but only one of them needs to be skilled. Consequently it can be maintained in readiness with only a small core unit of highly trained rowers.

Pirate ships have to be swift and light, and like the later Drakars they had to appear from nowhere and vanish again after swift bloody action. However they could not remain on the high seas, so merchant ships with good trained crews sailing in conveys were not an easy target for them.


It is an interesting observation that in 17th century Europe, specialised warships first made their appearance (before this time, a merchant vessel could easily be refitted to become a warship by the addition of armaments)

The House of Stuart in England wanted a Royal Navy. This was the financial reason for the revolt against Charles I, who bled the country for taxes in order to finance a navy)

The Dutch Republic, a mercantile nation par exellence, disbanded their Navy in times of peace. It was too expensive even for the rich republic to have a permanent navy of warships. The Dutch suffered for this when the sea wars with England started in 1672. The English had an navy, since Cromwell adopted a similar policy to the Stuarts, but the Dutch had to build again.

The conclusion from the above example is that it is very expensive to maintain an active Navy.